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What is a food allergy?

What is a food allergy?

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The terms ‘food allergy’ and ‘food intolerance’ are bandied about a lot, and it’s almost impossible to go out for dinner without hearing someone saying they can’t eat some food or other. But when someone says they’re gluten intolerant or allergic to peanuts, what does it actually mean?

Put simply, food allergy is a reaction by the immune system to certain proteins in food. The reaction can happen immediately or be delayed. Food intolerance is a catch-all term for other reactions that don’t involve the body’s immune system and are usually triggered by substances other than food proteins. Intolerance tends to be less severe than an allergy, and mostly involves abdominal issues or digestive problems.

Immediate allergic reactions can be anything from hives (which look like nettle rash), swollen lips or eyes, to vomiting or diarrhoea. The most severe symptoms – such as breathing difficulties or issues with the cardiovascular system such as a drop in blood pressure or loss of consciousness – are called anaphylaxis or an anaphylactic reaction.

Delayed allergic reactions are often more difficult to diagnose as they can occur up to three days after eating the relevant protein. Symptoms include eczema, vomiting, reflux, colic, stomach and digestive problems and faltering growth in children. It is possible to have a combination of both delayed and immediate allergies. For example, Fiona’s son has immediate allergies to peanuts and eggs, and a delayed allergy to gluten.

Lactose intolerance is a common form of intolerance where sufferers have a deficiency in the enzyme lactase, which means the sugar found in milk (called lactose) can’t be broken down properly, resulting in digestive and other problems. However, it’s important to understand that the special milks adapted for those with lactose intolerance are unsuitable for anyone with a dairy allergy as they still contain the proteins that trigger a reaction in those who are allergic.

Then there is coeliac disease, which is neither an allergy nor an intolerance. It is an autoimmune disease in which gluten triggers an unnecessary response by the body’s immune system. Friendly fire from the immune system can damage the lining of the small intestine, affecting the absorption of food, causing a range of problems including abdominal pain, diarrhoea, poor growth, insufficient weight gain and, in extreme cases, malnutrition.

Ellie discovered her daughter’s food allergies when Isabelle first sucked on a piece of cheese as a baby. Her eyes swelled up and her face and body was covered in hives within a minute of putting the cheese in her mouth. When she was referred to a specialist allergy and immunology consultant, tests established she was allergic not only to dairy, but also to egg, peanuts and sesame. Her asthma puts her at significant risk of anaphylaxis so she must always carry medication, including two adrenalin auto-injectors with her. Fiona’s son’s immediate allergies became apparent when he first ate a cake containing egg, and his peanut allergy was picked up in testing. But it took much longer – with many tests, elimination diets and several doctors – to work out he had a delayed allergy to gluten.

We know how daunting it can be when your child is miserable and suffering with digestive problems and eczema, and how scary it can be to witness your child having an immediate allergic reaction. We’d urge anyone who suspects that their child has an allergy or intolerance to see their GP to be referred to a specialist. The consultant will be able to get to the bottom of your child’s symptoms and, with the help of a specialist dietitian, put together a detailed diet plan to make sure your he or she is getting all the necessary nutrients when eliminating certain key foods. It’s really important not to cut out a main food group such as dairy, for example, from your child’s diet without a medical diagnosis and specialist advice.

In future posts we’ll discuss our understanding of various studies and research programmes looking into potential future cures for food allergy. But for the moment, these are all still experimental and current guidance when a food allergy is diagnosed is food avoidance.

While food allergy can seem overwhelming – particularly at the beginning when you’re new to it – we wholeheartedly believe it needn’t dominate your life or your child’s. You very quickly become used to checking labels, asking questions in restaurants and always carrying medication if you need to.

We both do a lot of home cooking as we need to eliminate quite a few allergens, but we believe there’s no reason this can’t be quick and straightforward. We use ordinary ingredients that you can easily find in supermarkets to make delicious recipes the whole family can eat together – there’s no need to cook twice or cater separately for your allergic child. Why not try our recipe for chicken drumsticks with colourful peppers as a start and see how easy it is.

Our dishes are always free from major allergens: dairy, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soya, gluten, sesame and shellfish. If some of these allergens are things your child is not allergic to, we often make suggestions at the bottom of the recipes to add ingredients back in – there’s no need to eliminate foods from your child’s diet unnecessarily. After all, it’s restricted by food allergy already, so the last thing we want to do is limit it further.

What is a food allergy? - Recipes

If you have a tried and tested allergy friendly recipe you would like to share please email it to us so we can include it in our ausEE Recipes page.

See our dedicated facebook page Australian Allergy Friendly Finds for more recipes and ideas!

These recipes may not suit everyone but some ingredients may be able to be modified to suit you/your child's diet restrictions.

The following websites also have allergy friendly recipes:

Here are some recipe books that you may like to check out at your local library, book shop or online.

If you know of a recipe book that you think is great please Contact Us to include it on this page.

4 Ingredients Allergies by Kim McCosker info here

Abundance by Tania Hubbard available from Whisk and Bowl

Allergies egg, nut & dairy by Jody Vassallo

Allergy cooking with ease by Nicolette M Dumke

Allergy free afternoon tea by Simone Emery and Ruth Meaney

Allergy Free Coach recipe book available here

Allergy-free cookbook by Alice Sherwood

Allergy-free cooking everyone loves by Stephanie Hapner

Allergy-free cooking for kids by The Australian Women's Weekly

Allergy Friendly Recipe eBooks by AllergySave. Available from AllergySave

Allergy Plate by Karen Chetner. Available online from Allergy Plate

A llergy safe family food 185 easy and delicious allergy safe recipes by Suzanna Paxton

Cooking for Isaiah gluten-free & dairy-free recipes for easy delicious meals by Silvana Nardone

Cooking for kids with allergies by The Australian Women's Weekly

Cut out the crap gluten free, dairy free and preservative free cooking by Collette White

Edan's kitchen egg, dairy and nut free baking by Annette Shorten

Elimin 8 plus corn food allergy cookbook by Betsy Chabin

EleCare Recipes by Abbott Nutrition. There are recipes on the EleCare Family website. You can also ask your dietitian or health professional or Contact Us about how to get a copy of the Australian printed EleCare Recipe Book.

Everyday with allergies 101 quick and easy recipes free of eggs, dairy and nuts by Tara Humphries

Extreme cooking for exceptional diets by American Partnership for Eosinophilic Disorders

Fast ideas safe recipes for kids revised edition by Denise King

Finally.. food I can eat! a dietary guide and cookbook for people with food allergies and dietary restrictions by Shirley Plant. More information here. Shirley Plant has provided us with some sample recipes from her cookbook you can download here -Quinoa Pancakes, Sweet and Sour Chicken and Sweet Potato Muffins.

Fridge Scrapings produced a FREE Ebook by Lou Dwan for those with severe allergies - you can view it here

Friendly food food for life by Dr Anne R Swain, Dr Velencia L Soutter and Dr Robert H Loblay from Royal Prince Alfred Hospital Allergy Unit. More information

Kersten's kitchen allergy free, not flavour free available here

Learning to bake allergen-free by Colette Martin from Learning to Eat Allergy-Free

Let them eat good cake by The Good Cake Co.

Loni's Allergy Free by Ilona Wilson available from Loni's Allergy Free

Neocate Recipes by Nutricia. There are allergy-friendly family recipes and recipes using Neocate on the Neocate Village website. You can also ask your dietitian or health professional or Contact Us about how to get a copy of the Australian printed Neocate Recipe Book.

No E.N.D. cookbook by Emma Carter, Maureen Hatcher and Donna Wilson. The No E.N.D. Cookbook features over 280 recipes all Egg, Nut & Dairy free!

One bowl allergy free baking by Linda Bosnic

Quirky Cooking by Jo Whitton available from here

RPAH elimination diet handbook with food and shopping guide by Royal Prince Alfred Hospital Allergy Unit

Sophie-safe cooking by Emily Hendrix

The allergen-free baker's handbook by Cybele Pascal

The allergy-free cook bakes bread by Laurie Sadowski

The allergy-free cook bakes cakes and cookies by Laurie Sadowski

The alternative kitchen: a beginners guide to cooking without dairy, soy, gluten, egg or meat by Lisa White from here

The easy peasy allergy free cookbook by Amanda Mackey

The everything food allergy cookbook by Linda Larsen

The failsafe cookbook by Sue Dengate

The healthy gluten-free life by Tammy Credicott

The New Zealand food allergy cookbook by Ros Campbell and Jill Macfarlane for Allergy New Zealand

Wholefood Simply by Bianca Slade available online

Yum! top tips for feeding babies and kids with allergies by Barbara Dennison, Fiona Wedding and Dr Preeti Joshi

8 degrees of ingredients by Melisa K Priem

There is a range of recipe books by Sue Shepherd available from Shepherd Works

Check out Wheat Free World for some recipe books on cooking gluten-free and allergy-free.

To download your free printable e-cookbook containing all of these recipes, please fill out the form below.

Love theses recipes! I just recently got tested and am allergic to 20+ common foods so these will be very helpful and easy to modify

Hi Kelly, I’m so sorry to hear you are dealing with so many allergies! I am happy that these recipe will be helpful to you. Please let me know if you ever need any help modifying the recipes to meet your needs. ☺

Are any of these freezer compatible?

Hi Jennifer, most of these recipes include freezer instructions. If you select the recipe you want to try and scroll down to the recipe part you will see freezer instructions at the bottom of the directions. I hope this helps!

Food Allergy Awareness Week: Over 120 Recipes and Resources

This post includes information to help increase awareness and accommodation of food allergies. It covers the topic of allergies vs intolerances, has dozens of top 8-free recipes, and includes community resources, like awareness printables. This post is for informational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or sway you toward any type of diet. If you believe you have any type of food reaction, consult your physician.

Food Allergy, Intolerance, …

Below is a cool diagram that outlines at a glance the differences between what we think of as a classic food allergy and food intolerance.

…or an Allergy that Behaves Like an Intolerance?

But this simple assessment is not the end all be all of possible food reaction issues. Lying somewhere in the middle ground is Eosinophilic Esophagitis (EoE) – a condition that hits home for my family – and Food Protein-Induced Enterocolitis Syndrome (FPIES). Both are immune system reactions to food (like classic food allergies addressed above) but occur specifically in the gastrointestinal tract (like food intolerance). Both EoE and FPIES are typically classified by the medical community as food allergies, but the reaction times may be more delayed and they can onset later in life.

As you may have guessed, milk is a top trigger in all four of the aforementioned food reaction types. For those without an IgE-mediated food allergy reaction (a.k.a. that classic food allergy diagnosis), but who are certain they are reacting to the protein in dairy, not the lactose, EoE and FPIES might be worth looking into. They are both cell-mediated reactions, so traditional IgE testing may not be enough to uncover the issue.

Alisa’s Top 8-Free Recipes

What would Food Allergy Awareness Week be without amazing food? Following are some allergy-friendly and gluten-free recipes that we have enjoyed in my home. All are free of the Top 8 Food Allergens (dairy, egg, wheat / gluten, soy, peanut, tree nut, fish, and shellfish) and for the most are free of the Canadian Top 11 Food Allergens, too!

Allergy-friendly recipes

Discover delicious allergy-friendly recipes! Download the recipes and watch the recipe videos.

Below you will find allergy-friendly recipes from one of our past campaigns, a registered dietitian, and from a few of our adult with allergies bloggers. We hope you find these recipes as enjoyable to make as they are to eat! Yum yum!

Allergy-friendly kitchen with Alex & Thea

Masterchef Canada 2017 finalist and allergy awareness advocate Thea VanHerwaarden teamed up with Canadian race car star Alex Tagliani in the Allergy-friendly kitchen to cook up an allergy-friendly feast. Thea, along with Registered Dietitian Linda Kirste, created a few allergy-friendly recipes that are delicious and nutritious. Download the recipes today!

A popular snack, originally from Greece, this delicious late-night eat is considered by many Haligonians to be the unofficial food of choice.

Green onion cakes

Now legendary and a super popular festival and street food, the green onion cake is said to have been introduced to Edmontonians by restauranteur Sui To who immigrated to Canada from Northern China. They’re irresistible as a snack or as a meal accompaniment.

Double chocolate banana bread

Divinely chocolatey and oh so moist. Likely to have a special spot in your recipe collection.

Açaï Bowl

A refreshing addition to breakfast or any meal, easy and quick to make. The fresh fruit and seed toppings are simply gorgeous.

Inspired by west coast culinary fusion, this sushi calls for chicken instead of fish. Let your creativity loose for inspiring additional filling ideas.*

*If you have a mustard allergy, check with your allergist before eating other seeds or plants in the Brassicaceae family, like wasabi.

Chicken tacos with mango salsa and chickpea avocado crema

These chicken tacos will have any guest asking for more. A pop of spice from the chicken is cooled down perfectly with a creamy chickpea and avocado crema. Serve with a side of tradition­al black beans and you have yourself a Mexican fiesta.

Allergy-friendly recipes from Linda Kirste, RD

Linda Kirste is a Registered Dietitian and has provided multiple recipes that inspire creativity in the kitchen while substituting priority allergens. Check out:

  • Linda’s substitution chart where she provides suggestions regarding substitutions for priority allergens, including a few recipes you may find helpful.
  • Linda’s tips on how to set up a healthy diet for kids with food allergies, including three suggested recipes for breakfast, snacks, lunch or dinner.

Recipes from the community

Video series with food blogger Amanda Orlando

Discover Amanda’s recipes, tips for avoiding cross-contamination in the kitchen, and extending the life of your food.

Adults with allergies

Our adults bloggers have also shared their favourite recipes. Note that some of these recipes may contain priority allergens. Please use Linda’s substitution chart and check all ingredient lists to ensure this recipe is safe for you.

Recipes from Nestle Canada

Check out these spooky recipes from the team at Nestlé Canada using your favourite peanut-free Halloween mini-bars.

Please always read the food label to ensure that all ingredients are free from your allergen. The recipes below are peanut-free, however, please adapt the recipes as needed to make it allergy friendly for you.

Eating Becomes a Challenge When you Have Multiple Food Allergies!

Learning how to make everything from scratch can be a daunting and time consuming task, but it doesn't have to be!

It feels as if there are no quick and easy meals and you must read every label, every time to ensure the ingredients are safe. 

You need to know about the many different names for ingredients which may have hidden allergens.

Did you know that the ingredient “Lactablumin” may indicate there is milk in the product?  This is a stress every person and family with allergies lives with on a daily basis.

Learn How to Make New Healthy Recipes  and Start Eating Less Processed Foods!

That’s why we created this site to find ways to re-create allergy free versions of those dishes from your recipe box that you used to love and enjoy!!

Perhaps we will even find that old restaurant favorite that you can no longer have do to allergies!

Living with multiple food allergies no longer means living without so many of your old time favorites.

You will learn how to control the ingredient’s you are putting into your meals and your body while keeping allergens out!

Our goal is to bring more awareness to food allergens and eczema as well as create a place where people can easily find and share allergy friendly recipes.

Learn how to turn food allergies into a blessing by creating delicious healthy recipes that the whole family will love, including some great chicken recipes, dessert recipes and so much more!

Click the tabs to the left to view our FREE online recipe selection.

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About Allergic Living

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Here is a list of the most popular resources on my site that will help you as you learn more about baking and cooking for food allergies:

When cooking for food allergies, the obvious place to start is in your pantry! Find out what ingredients you’ll need to stock your allergy friendly pantry. From safe brands of pasta, breads, and baking mixes, to sweets and snacks, you will find out how to locate safe ingredients for your family. If you love to shop on Amazon, I have a page all about allergy friendly foods available on Amazon.

Finding out you have an egg allergy when you love to bake can be daunting. But it’s still possible to make amazing egg free cakes, cupcakes, vegan chocolate chip cookies, and more! Learn how to bake delicious egg free desserts with my guide to egg replacers.

There are so many options available now for those with dairy allergies. From non-dairy milks to vegan cheeses and dairy free ice creams, there are lots of dairy free options at the grocery store now. Read my guide to find out what dairy substitutes will work well in both cooking and baking.

Learn the basics of finding inexpensive gluten free ingredients at the grocery store, health food store, and even online at places like Amazon and Vitacost.

It’s not difficult to make your favorite baked goods vegan and wheat free – you just need to use the right ingredients. Sometimes you can simply use a substitution or two – find out what will yield delicious results.

There are hundreds of allergy friendly recipes on this site – from gluten free to dairy free to top 8 allergen free and more. Use this feature to search and sort the recipes by allergens. Simply choose the ingredients you need to avoid to find the recipes that are right for you.

From pancakes, waffles, and French toast, to oatmeal and smoothies, there are lots of allergy friendly breakfast options on this page.

You can still enjoy comforting main dish recipes even with food allergies. Find lots of gluten free, dairy free, and top 8 allergen free recipes to enjoy for dinner.

Browse my selection of cookbooks – there are ebooks and paper books in my shop for you to enjoy!

You can do this – baking and cooking for food allergies can be fun and delicious! I’m here to help you along the way. Please feel free to reach out with any questions – I’m here for you!

Treatment [ edit | edit source ]

Strict avoidance of the allergy-causing food is the only way to avoid a reaction. Reading ingredient labels for all foods is the key to maintaining control over the allergy. If a product doesn't have a label, allergic individuals should not eat that food. If a label contains unfamiliar terms, shoppers must call the manufacturer and ask for a definition or avoid eating that food.

Epinephrine, also called adrenaline, is the medication of choice for controlling a severe reaction. It is available by prescription as a self-injectable device.

Currently, there are no medications that cure food allergies. Strict avoidance is the only way to prevent a reaction. Most people outgrow their food allergies, although peanuts, nuts, fish, and shellfish are often considered lifelong allergies. Some research is being done in this area and it looks promising.

Food Safety

A food allergy is an abnormal, exaggerated reaction of the immune system to certain foods.

When someone has a food allergy, their immune system wrongly sees the food as hostile and the body's defence mechanism springs into action. This produces a range of symptoms, which can vary from mild itching to severe breathing difficulties or even shock. These symptoms usually happen immediately after eating the food.

An allergen is any normally harmless substance that causes an immediate allergic reaction in a susceptible person. Food allergens are almost always proteins, although other food ingredients, such as some additives, are known to cause allergic reactions.


Sometimes a person can suffer an allergic reaction after eating a protein that is is similar to another protein that is an allergen. For instance,

  • A latex allergy can be associated with a number of food allergies including banana, avocado, chestnut, apple, carrot, celery, papaya, kiwi, potato, tomato and melons.
  • Allergy to tree pollen can also be associated with allergies to fruit.
  • People who are allergic to birch pollen are also allergic to apples, almonds, peaches, kiwi, carrots, celery, peppers and hazelnut.
  • Cross-reactivity with melons, tomatoes and oranges has been recorded in people who are allergic to grass pollen.

What happens in an allergic reaction?

Essentially, when the immune system reacts to a food ingredient during an allergic reaction, it triggers the release of chemicals such as histamine from cells in the body. This causes some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Itching or swelling in the mouth and throat
  • Hives anywhere on the body
  • Runny nose and eyes
  • Reddening of the skin
  • Feeling sick
  • Diarrhoea and/or vomiting

If the reaction is severe, other symptoms can occur including:

  • A sudden feeling of weakness (caused by a drop in blood pressure)
  • Breathing problems (your throat might start to swell up or close)

This is an anaphylactic reaction, also known as anaphylactic shock, and is life threatening. It requires immediate treatment by adrenaline injection followed by expert medical assistance. Usually the symptoms happen within seconds or minutes of being exposed to the food but the reaction can be delayed for several hours.

What foods cause an allergic reaction?

Although peanut and nut allergies are probably best known, any food can cause an allergic response in a susceptible person. Allergies to over 180 foods have been documented worldwide. Most of these are very rare and some are associated with particular populations or regions of the world.

Cod fish allergy is common in Scandinavia, as is rice allergy in China and celery allergy in France. These allergies are less common on the island of Ireland where the more frequently encountered allergies include those to peanuts, tree nuts, egg, crustaceans, milk and wheat.

How is a food allergy diagnosed?

  • A physical check-up will rule out other more obvious medical problems in the first instance.
  • A concise dietary history including a description of the symptoms and the foods suspected of triggering these symptoms.
  • A history of atopic disease in the family including any allergies to foods or other materials, any food intolerances including coeliac disease and incidences of asthma, hay fever, eczema, etc.
  • The patient may be instructed to keep a food diary of their eating habits, symptoms and medications to help pinpoint the problem.
  • An elimination diet may be used to link the symptoms with the food or foods causing them. This may not be advisable if the reaction has been severe.

If a food allergy is suspect after these investigations, more diagnostic methods are employed:

  • Skin prick tests are used to determine the reaction to a range of foods or to see if the problem could have been caused by other common allergens such as dust, cat hair or pollen. It can also give an indication of how strong the reaction is.
  • Blood tests are used to determine the strength of the immune system response to an allergen. This usually involves a radioallergosorbent or &lsquoRAST&rsquo test in which the level of IgE antibodies &ndash the kind specifically associated with a food allergic reaction &ndash are measured.
  • Allergen provocation tests are generally regarded as being diagnostically the most definitive. The &lsquodouble-blind placebo controlled food challenge&rsquo (DBPCFC) is used to administer the suspect allergenic food to the patient orally under clinical supervision. The DBPCFC can be risky for people who may have a severe food allergy and in this case is only carried out in a hospital setting with full resuscitation equipment.

What is oral allergy syndrome?

In some cases allergic reactions can be confined to the mouth, lips, tongue or throat area. Here, the symptoms which are generally tingling and localised swelling usually occur within one hour of eating the offending food. Oral allergy syndrome is normally linked to the consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables. Patients often complain that something is stuck in their throat but progression to a severe reaction is unlikely. People with oral allergy syndrome caused by fruit and vegetables often have an associated allergy to certain pollens and may get hay fever when these pollens are in season.

What about exercise induced food allergy?

This is a rare condition where someone can have a severe allergic reaction within a couple of hours of eating a particular food, if they take vigorous exercise. People who are sensitive in this way may normally be able to eat the food with only a mild reaction or no reaction at all.

How can I find out if a food product is being withdrawn or recalled for food allergy reasons?

When allergy labelling is incorrect or inadequate or if there is another reason which puts food allergy sufferers at risk, the food product has to be withdrawn or recalled to protect consumers who can stay informed about the latest withdrawals or recalls by signing up for food allergy alerts by email or SMS text message.

These alerts are issued regarding the possible risk to food hypersensitive consumers from a particular food. In the Republic of Ireland, consumers can subscribe to the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) allergen alerts.

Related pages

Coeliac disease is an &ldquoauto immune&rdquo disease triggered by gluten.

A food intolerance is a bad reaction to a food, but without involving the immune system.

A food sensitivity is a bad reaction to a food that is otherwise safe to eat.

Treatment of food allergies in children

As in adults, it is very important that your child stays away from foods that cause allergies. If you are breastfeeding your child, it is important that you not eat foods to which your child is allergic.

You may need to give vitamins to your child if he or she is unable to eat certain foods. Discuss this with your child's healthcare provider.

Your child's healthcare provider may also prescribe an emergency kit. Be sure to ask your child's healthcare provider about an emergency kit if you don't already have one.

Some children under the supervision of their healthcare provider may be given certain foods after a period of 3 to 6 months. This finds out if the child has outgrown the allergy.